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Rocks around the clock

Riders in mountain-bike ultramarathons risk serious injury and fight sleep deprivation. So why are these races the hot trend in cycling? Roy M. Wallack reports from the 24 Hours of Moab.

November 04, 2003|Roy M. Wallack

THREE blown tires. Two burned-out lights. No sleep for 20 hours. It's 3 a.m. at the 24 Hours of Moab mountain-bike race, and a frantic Mike Bahel is on foot, desperately pushing his bike through the freezing Utah canyonlands. The second dead lamp has punched out his lights and left him staggering in the dark on a boulder-infested trail that eats groggy riders. Cyclists whiz by, their clouds of dust and blinding beams throwing him off-balance and nearly tumbling him backward into a 30-foot drop-off just inches away.

Bahel, a 37-year-old gym owner from East Hampton, N.Y., had planned on being done with his 15-mile lap by now. Instead, his water's nearly gone, his elbow's throbbing from a crash, and he's got half the course to go -- seven-plus miles of straggling up and down a thousand feet of elevation change, of pupils straining to expand beyond their light-gathering capability, of the terror of falling into a shadowy abyss.

Meanwhile, first-time solo rider Alexander Dulpp, of Auburn Hills, Mich., faces his own nightmare: the Dead Zone -- the infamous slow-motion hours between 2 a.m. and dawn that 24-hour soloists dread. Whacked by missing Zs and 105 miles of nonstop riding -- triple that of rotating team riders like Bahel -- the bleary-eyed 29-year-old German engineer is losing speed and spirit. He can barely stand the thought of one more PowerBar. He stays upright by imagining he is sinking his teeth into a bean-and-cheese burrito, its tantalizing aroma still with him after it wafted over from pit row. He hopes he'll revive with the sun's energizing morning rays; all the soloists talk about it. But, at wit's and body's end, he knows that might as well be years, not hours, away. "It's not biking anymore -- it's just trying not to fall," Dulpp says weakly.

For one weekend last month, Dulpp, Bahel and 1,751 other mountain bikers, plus families and friends, converged on Behind the Rocks, a desolate hunk of mile-high grazing land and red sandstone towers outside Moab, Utah, for the eighth annual 24 Hours of Moab. It's a premier stop on a circuit that may be the hottest trend in cycling: round-the-clock relay racing, which features teams of sleep-deprived riders in an ultramarathon that runs from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.

First staged a decade ago, these so-called "Woodstocks on Wheels" now annually draw more than 25,000 men and women to 24-hour events in the U.S. and Canada. California is a 24-hour hotbed with half a dozen events, including several in Riverside County in the spring and fall and others in Monterey, Tahoe and Kirkwood.

Straddling the Colorado River as it cuts through the red-rock canyonlands of east-central Utah, Moab is a mountain-bike mecca, known the world over for its Slickrock Trail and endless network of bike routes with challenging climbs and stunning vistas. There are five busy bike shops in a city of only 10,000. Parking lots all over town are filled with vans and pickups bristling with handlebars; posted signs at hotels warn: "Absolutely no bikes allowed in rooms."

That wasn't an issue at the tent city housing hundreds of bikers at Behind the Rocks. It was a record crowd for the event -- no surprise to Laird Knight, the West Virginia promoter who invented the 24-hour mountain bike concept in 1992. Modeled after the 24 Hours of LeMans auto race, Knight's initial 24 Hours of Canaan in the Appalachian Mountains drew 36 coed teams of five, and was an immediate hit.

"Everyone loved it, because it got back to the core value of what mountain biking's all about," said Knight, "camaraderie, not tooth-and-nail competition. You and a bunch of friends doing something hard together, helping each other, and having a good time talking about it later. It's got to be bona-fide adventure -- which by definition is not easy. It's no big deal when it's easy. Which is why this course [Moab] isn't."

He won't get any argument from those who rode the route, which included 1,360 feet of bone-shaking climbs and descents amid Utah's blood-orange boulders and soaring crimson arches -- if you dared to look up from the trail and had daylight on your side. The course was booby-trapped with dozens of momentum-sapping sand pits and rocky stair-steps. Even the savviest riders dismounted at "Nose Dive," a dry waterfall at Mile 5, and blew tires on "Baby Head Alley," an otherwise easy downhill studded with hundreds of land mine-like rocks. There were so many riders patching tubes on this stretch that it looked like an epoxy convention.

But it didn't throw off America's -- and Downey's -- most famous mountain biker: two-time Olympian David "Tinker" Juarez. The dreadlocked three-time national champion has extended his cycling career by shifting his attention entirely to 24-hour solo races, a small but fast-growing part of the round-the-clock scene.

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